At least 10 people, including four children, were killed and scores injured yesterday in a huge blaze which gutted a house occupied by asylum seekers in the Baltic port of Lubeck. Although German police left open the possibility that the blaze was caused by accident, they questioned three young men on suspicion of arson.
"We are following up every avenue. Everything from technical fault to arson is conceivable," said Winfried Tabarelli, the head of Lubeck's criminal police. The three suspects, one of whom was described as a skinhead, were all from Grevesmuhlen, 20 miles east across the border that used to separate the two Germanies.
They were known to the police, but not for neo-Nazi activities. Nevertheless, the authorities did not rule out a racial motive, and the Mayor of Lubeck, Michael Bouteiller, called for a demonstration against neo-Nazi violence. Last night some 4,000 people, many carrying flowers, gathered in the centre of the city to commemorate the victims.
The blaze erupted shortly before 4am and spread rapidly through the four- storey building, turning into a fireball as it consumed the timber in the converted loft. The house, like similar refugee hostels across Germany, was packed with people, many of them probably illegal immigrants. The building had 45 registered residents, mostly Zaireans, Togolese, Syrians, Lebanese and Poles, but firefighters counted well over 60 inhabitants.
Apart from the 10 dead, 55 people were injured, suffering from burns, suffocation and fractures as they leapt out of the windows in panic. Five people were last night in critical condition. So intense were the flames that rescue workers were for a long time unable to enter the building, fearing that the structure would collapse.
As stunned neighbours last night gathered round the charred ruin of what used to be a solid turn-of-the-century building, the cause of the fire remained unclear. Some city officials claimed to have evidence, not confirmed by police, that the flames engulfed the house from several directions simultaneously, indicating that the fire was started deliberately.
If they turn out to be right, and if the motive proves to be racist, then yesterday's events will go down in history as the most murderous attack yet by neo-Nazis. Until now that infamy was claimed by the town of Solingen near Cologne, where two Turkish women and three girls perished on the night of 29 May 1993 in a fire started by right-wing extremists.
That attack, followed by violent demonstrations by Turks, shocked Germany and the rest of the world. The four people involved received sentences of between 10 and 15 years, and the authorities clamped down on neo-Nazis. Lubeck itself has had its share of trouble. During Passover in 1994 its synagogue became the first in Germany to suffer an attack by Nazi arsonists since the Second World War.
The countryside around Lubeck is a hotbed of neo-Nazi activity. Day-trippers from the impoverished east go there looking for trouble, harassing foreigners and spreading propaganda. Not far from the city lies the town of Molln, notorious for one of the first attacks on immigrants in what became a vogue after German unification. In 1992 a Turkish woman and two girls were burnt to death in a manner that was to become the hallmark of neo- Nazi terror.
But though the statistics seemingly indicate no break in the pattern, the violence abated after Solingen. Reports of fires at immigrant homes appear in the German press almost daily. There was one such incident yesterday at the town of Burgwedel, 120 miles south of Lubeck, where arsonists tried to set a home for Yugoslav immigrants on fire. But this may turn out to have been the work of members of the same community, just as most attacks on Turkish targets are blamed on Kurdish extremists.
Speaking in nearby Kiel, the German President, Roman Herzog, offered sympathy to the Lubeck victims and their families. "We have to pay attention today to the basic rights of criminals," he said, "but we also have to protect the human rights of the victims." The President added that "if this turns out to be an attack then my patience is exhausted".Reuse content